Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Working for the Weekends?

Science academics are notoriously composed of workaholics motivated by gaining that slight competitive edge for the limited number of postdocs, grants, tenure track jobs, etc. This pressure trickles down to the grad student level where there is a mutual respect in the exchanged glances of those folks hanging around the lab on Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Advisors, PIs, and collaborators seem proud when they catch you emailing on the weekend. I've even heard of a sign hanging on the entrance of one very productive lab group that reads "If you're not here on Sunday, don't come back on Monday"!

 Well... while messing around on Google Trends during a Nimbios workshop this week, I discovered that you can actually observed a scientific weekend in Google search data.

 Below, you can check out the last 90 days of Google searches for the terms "science" and "nature" within the US. Notice the cyclic pattern. What are those giant dips? Saturday and Sunday!

One Excel spreadsheet and a few estimations from Google AdWords later, I found that from Wednesday (mid-week) to Saturday, the number of google searches drops about 15% for the term "nature", and a whopping 30% for "science"! On average (according to my cursory estimations), "science" is googled 545,000 times a day in the US. So, in general, "science" is googled 190,000 times less on Saturday than it is through the weekdays. "Nature" drops by 25,000 from it's average of 160,000.

I'm not completely sure how to interpret these results, so I think I'll take the comforting view: At least some scientists stop working as much on the weekends, so it's OK if you want to stay away from the office.

You also might notice that science seems to be on the decline since May. I suppose that makes sense; after all, school's out for the summer... ... for some people.

NOTE: Same qualitative pattern holds for a worldwide analysis and for the search term "science journal"

Friday, May 10, 2013

Voice of Conservation

If there was ever an incentive to work really hard at a career in conservation science, it'd be so you could some day get to the point where you can say really dramatic stuff like this and get it published in Science.

On the other hand, the knowledge that this kind of blatant disregard for preserving biodiversity in developed nations is at best unsettling, and at worst, down right depressing.

This kind of policy degradation of protected areas is not just happening in Australia. Below is a screen capture I took from Google maps. The image is of a national forest in PA. Note the 'forest rd' and the 'scenic trail', then notice the enormous number of drilling sites fragmenting the "protected" forest. 

Maybe someday we'll have more voices cheering for these guys... these guys will listen...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ferntree Gully

One of my favorite things dotting the Australian landscape (other than tiny furry marsupials) is the tree fern. These funny palm-tree looking things make me feel like I've been transported into the Jurassic period or some other long past land.

Like the ground ferns you’re probably familiar with, these guys grow fiddleheads that unravel into full fronds. But instead of completely dying back each year, they just keep growing from the top, leaving what looks like a trunk propelling it into the sky. So depending on the microclimate, tree ferns can be short and fat, tall and thin, bendy, stubby, or super huge!

These plants, along with the other wet-forest foliage also reminded me of something else. It took me a little while to put my finger on it, but after catching on that these were “rainforests”, it hit me. The LAST rainforest! A few of you reading this may also have been raised as a 90’s recycling loving kid, and so must remember the adventures of Crysta and her fairy friends in Fern Gully.

Ah… the 'comforting' conservation phase of my life! Back then I thought all I had to do in order to save the world was pick up litter, learn what numbered plastics were recycled, and hug a few trees.  Well, at least I still do those things…

Anyways, as it turns out, the premise of Fern Gully was supposedly set in one of these rainforest remnants characteristic of Victoria & Tasmania. The big timber companies are still a force to be reckoned with in this region, and are a point of political contention with the locals in Tassie. Furthermore, as it turns out Fern Gully is still there… well, sort of. Fern Tree Gully is a subdivision east of Melbourne. Here it is on google maps.

I guess putting the 1-4’s in the bin and connecting with nature (even teaching a magically shrunken chainsaw-happy dude to feel the essence of the forest) isn't enough to stop large scale economic forces.

Australian vocab:

Dunnie: toilet
Bum-bag: fanny-pack (be careful with this one, as you could get some strange looks as explained by the definition below; ex: Heath Ledger sports a bum-bag in the film Two Hands
Fanny: c***

. Unfortunately, it does appear to have been turned into a subdivison.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Plant Trees and Eat more Vegetables

At the Ecological Society of Australia Conference this week, I watched a talk about a study measuring the above and belowground biomass of some low-rainfall tree species. They touted the importance of this research as vital for the wider aim of carbon sequestration. This got me wondering... How valid a solution carbon sequestration is for approaching climate change?

A quick description for those unfamiliar with this concept. Carbon sequestration is the idea that atmospheric CO2 can be removed by capturing it in newly growing plants (or possibly other ways, but this is the most popular). So, the idea is, that if we plant enough trees, we could help to curb the dramatically increasing concentration of CO2 warming the Earth.

How feasible is this? So after some dredging of the internet, I came across a paper that quantifies the amount of carbon sequestered in a Manchurian Ash forest. This is a hardy, easily cultivated tree from northern China, and out of the species covered in the paper, it seemed to suck up the most carbon, quickly. Then I dug up this cool figure showing a variety of carbon emission ‘scenarios’ from the IPCC report for policy makers. And yes, you're reading that axes correctly. The unit on the y-axis is gigatonnes. Yes, freaking, gigatonnes (aka. the weight of one billion elephants according to the old, analogy used by your elementary school teacher to conceptualize a ton).

After some huge assumptions and shoddy calculations, the best case scenario provided by the IPCC (the green section on the graph) could be offset if every one of the 7 billion people in the world were to plant about 100 trees and make sure to keep them alive for at least 20 years before cutting them down. Of course, don’t burn them or let them rot... Then the CO2 will be back!  Well, that level of action would just about do it. But let’s be honest… that’s pretty improbable considering the fact that most of the world's population lives in cities, and thus doesn't have space to plant 100 trees.

Well, that brings me to my second dodgy calculation. Is there enough room for all these trees? If you use the same Manchurian Ash data, you would estimate that about 2 billion hectares of land need to be transformed to mature ash forest over about 50 years to bring atmospheric CO2 back to 1990 levels.  Wellllll.... considering that most of the earth is water... ice.... desert... cities... or already a forest, this also starts to look not-to-feasible. However, according to this old National Geo article almost 6 billion hectares are dedicated to agriculture, over half of which is purely for livestock. So, this leads me to the extreme conclusion that if everybody became a vegetarian, or actually, if we just cut our livestock rearing in half, we would have enough free land for forest conversion to significantly reduce our carbon footprint. 

Ok, there's a lot of flaws in this logic, like... many locations on earth will not support the types of forest that would sequester this much carbon, this is assuming that we are already following a huge reduction in our carbon dioxide production ("good" IPCC scenarios), and actual growth of many forests (not to mention economic market reactions or international collaborations) would take many years to reach maturity, possibly too late to mitigate many consequences of climate change. 

HOWEVER, fact of the matter is, on a large scale, changes in human behavior could have a significant impact on this seemingly unsolvable problem. So, you know, go out... plant a tree... or 10. And try to cut your meat intake by at least half. Then tell all your friends to do the same. 

On a lighter note...

Australian vocab:

stubbie holder: not as dirty as it sounds, this little guy holds a stubbie (a fat beer bottle). You may know it as a beer coozy. (ex: "I snatched up a few of those free stubbie holders at the conference to keep my Coopers cold this weekend. I hear it's gonna be 37!")
budgy smuggler: as dirty as it sounds... a speedo. A budgy, for the record, is a little parakeet. (ex: "You should never try to use a budgy smuggler as a stubbie holder, or vice versa")

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Last week, I had the great opportunity to take the short flight down to Hobart!

I gave a short talk at IMAS (Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies) and got a chance to hear a fisheries scientist's (or more like a room full of fisheries scientists) view on my research. Apparently, all the marine protected area researchers  (a.k.a supporters) were away at a workshop, so I was left with the guys who furrow their brows the moment they hear those 3 little letters... M P A. It was a far cry from the usual conservation-oriented group I talk to....
   me: "so when increasing the size of a protected area..." 
   crowd: "Of COURSE! MORE protected areas... jolly good!!"  
In a fisheries room:
   me: "So when changing the spatial configuration of a protected area..."
  crowd: "Have you considered whether this is an effective choice for management? It's been shown on numerous occasions that MPAs do nothing to increase fishery gains. Are you modelling a well managed fishery?"
It's always good to hear the skeptics.  

In other news, Tasmania is beautiful. It's like the alps I wrote about, but you can live there! And it has oceans and sailing. The pictures at the top are (on the left) the sandy shore out behind the IMAS offices, and (on the right) a somewhat cloudy view from the top of Mt. Wellington, which overlooks Hobart.

Hobart is one of the oldest cities in Australia, so early 19th century, and all the old sections are constructed form local sandstone. This makes for a cohesive and earthy vibe.

This is an alley off of Salamanca market, the old waterfront where whales would be gutted with remains washing back into the bay, and current home to a gigantic Saturday market! 
I also found a nice whiskey distellary dowtown where I had the odd experience of listening to an American playing bluegrass on a mandolin and singing about John Brown. Apparently it is a small world afterall.

I also saw spiders and devils, and no it's not Halloween. But seriously, how cute is this little tassie devil?

A quick journey outside the city to Mt. Field National Park taught me a couple things. 1) forecasts for the bottom of a mountain do not include the temperature drop and possibility of entering a cloud when you hike to the top of the mountain. 2) There is not a field on top of this mountain

 and 3) Tasmania has some HUGE trees. Here's one of me hugging a tree... and the view from the hug. These are Swamp gums (Eucalyptus regnans) and they are apparently the largest flowering tree in the world. They're debated (at least by Tasmanians)  to be taller than redwoods... well, sometimes. They lose their branches quite frequently and so vary a bit in height. But this guy was about 79m tall.

Other than big trees, devils, and awesome, Tasmania's new claim to fame is a winery/art museum/brewery owned by an eccentric billionaire who made his fortune gambling. Consistent with the previously discussed Australian naming scheme, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), holds in its 3 stories of underground bunker a collection of art that would make you feel awkward standing next to... well just about anybody. The owner apparently defines art as anything that makes you question your own mortality, cry a little on the inside, or just feel generally uncomfortable. Here are some very PG examples:
On the left is a pooping machine. Yes, you put food in on one end and after many hours of digestion in different containers with different enzymes, poop comes out the other end! Magic. Smelly, smelly, magic. Or a statement about society... or something. Anyways, on the right is a fat porsche. Another statement about society? I guess so. By the end of my journey through this museum, I felt like I'd been walking through one of those haunted houses where people jump out at you. My brain was pulling the same sort of ultra-aware defense mechanism, where it's constantly trying to figure out what is going to f*** with it next. Regardless of the crazy billionaire and his art, I still loved Tasmania and would love to explore the rest of it one day.

I'll be back for you....

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Hills are Alive.... with the Sound of Frigid Wind & Magpies

Two weeks ago, we headed up to the "Australian Alps". True to the naming scheme I've noticed in the bird guide (e.g. Australian oystercatcher, Australian magpie, Australian white ibis, etc.), it means it's just like the other version, except Australian. Well... sort of. OK, they're a little shorter, and have a little less permanent snow on top, but still! They're mountains, and in Australia... so that's something!

I'm just kidding. In all honesty, the "bogong high plains" were absolutely breathtaking, as you can see by my enthusiastic use of panoramic shots framing this post. We were up there helping out with a long term global nutrient study. Not a shabby place for a field site...

We spent the afternoon making notes about measurements of willow growth, and then stretched out hundreds of meters of neon string to mark the grids we would 'treat' with various cocktails of nutrients. The next day, we spent a chilly and foggy morning sprinkling little whitish pellets evenly over about 500 sq meters of earth. I felt like a tiny elf decorating a giant birthday cake. But as we finished up, the cloud were blown away, and we were treated to a beautiful sunny afternoon. Saw a kestrel seemingly floating on the wind, and watched some pelicans (Australian, mind you) hanging out on the reservoir.

The most beautiful part about the high plains is simply the peacefulness of it all. No large animals venture up into that habitat (and few people outside of ski season). The deer and roos stay further down the mountain in the lusher vegetation of the gullies. The only things flitting about were a few robins and lots of ravens and magpies. Just quiet and space.

Two things I did NOT expect to see:

1) --> Gwen in waist deep snow! OK, well, next to waist deep snow.

2) <-- Daffodils! Strange... we couldn't decide if a few bulbs had rolled out the back of some truck driving past, or if these were the potentially invasive kind that actually seed out. Might have to wait til next spring to find out :/

Regardless, I'm happy I made my way up to the hills. Not a view I'd like too soon forget.

Australian vocab:

schoolie: a recent secondary school graduate, one who is celebrating their freedom (in the US, the equivalent would be 'beach weekers')
toolie: some one who is no longer in school, but feels the need to hang out with recent graduates to steal their fun (a.k.a. creepy douche-bag)
For examples see: this news article or this one, or google it for yourself